Civility best lesson on homosexuality

Sunday, May 11, 1997

You have written that public schools should not be neutral
on values. What about values and homosexuality? How do we reconcile
the desire of many educators to promote tolerance with the concerns
of many conservative religious parents?

Barbara Gaddy, Aurora, Colo.

The First Amendment requirement that public schools be neutral
concerning religion does not mean that schools should be neutral
on the core moral values widely agreed to in the community. Most
citizens want their schools to teach and model honesty, caring,
responsibility, citizenship and other moral and civic virtues.

Beyond these shared values, however, are social issues and public-policy
questions, such as homosexuality and abortion, which deeply divide
Americans — often along religious lines. Public schools should not
be the battleground for resolving these debates.

The role of schools is to create a learning environment where
all students feel safe. No student, including those who identify
themselves as gay or lesbian, should be harassed or humiliated
by other students. Unfortunately, name-calling and even physical
attacks are all too common in some school districts. Teachers
and parents, liberal and conservative, should all be able to
agree that hate and violence have no place in a public school.

Teaching tolerance should mean teaching students to treat one
another with civility even when they disagree. Teaching tolerance
should not mean requiring students to accept the religion,
politics or sexual orientation of their classmates. Conservative
Christian parents do not object to the teaching of civility. They
do object to teaching that requires their children to approve
of a way of life that offends their religious convictions. Democratic
citizenship requires a commitment to civil debate, but it does
not require a compromise of our deepest convictions.

Discussions about homosexuality will inevitably come up in classrooms,
especially on the secondary level, in such courses as social studies
and health education. The best approach for a teacher to take
about this or any other social issue that divides Americans is
to teach the controversy. A variety of perspectives, including
religious perspectives, should be presented by the teacher as
part of a fair and balanced discussion. Students should be encouraged
to express their views, religious and otherwise, without resorting
to name-calling or ridicule.

How much should be taught about this and other social issues
should be decided by local school districts working closely with
parents. But until our society resolves some of the legal and
social disputes surrounding homosexuality, we should not ask schools
to take sides. Schools must be places where American citizens
on all sides learn to live with deep differences and to treat
one another with civility and respect.